The Decline of the Roman Empire

Architecture during the Severan Dynasty

The Severan Dynasty was the last stable period of imperial reign over the Roman Empire until that of Constantine.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Triumphal Arches of Septimius Severus, the Baths of Caracalla, and Caracalla’s Serapeum on the Quirinal Hill

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Septimius Severus established the Severan dynasty and declared himself a son of Marcus Aurelius to legitimize his reign and depicted himself in the fashion of the last good emperor.
  • The Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome visually relates to the triumphal arches of the city, especially the triple arch of Augustus, not only by commemorating a victory over the Parthians but by also using similar narrative conventions to establish Severan authority.
  • The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna, the emperor’s hometown, is a unique four-sided arch that demonstrates both the new style of the Late Antique as well as the triumphal events of Septimius Severus’s victory over the Parthians that occurred in Rome.
  • The Baths of Caracalla were his major building program in Rome as a gift to the Roman people. The baths demonstrate the impressive and expansive use of Roman concrete, vaults , and architectural design.
  • Caracalla’s commission of a Serapeum , dedicated to an Egyptian god with Greek attributes, on the Quirinal Hill highlights the diversity reached in the Roman pantheon by the third century.

Key Terms

  • Serapeum: A temple or sanctuary dedicated to the Egypto-Hellenic god Serapis.
  • mithraeum: The place of worship for followers of Mirthras. It was often in a cave-like space that was underground, narrow, and lined with benches. Mithraea is plural for mirthraeum.

The assassination of Commodus in 192 CE once again plunged the Roman Empire into a year of civil war. Five generals succeeded one another until the fifth, Septimius Severus, consolidated power and managed to reign over Rome until his death from illness, 19 years later in 211 CE.

He established the Severan Dynasty that reigned until 235 CE, overseen by five different emperors. Unfortunately for Rome, the economy and the bureaucratic and administrative power of the Emperor and the Senate were declining during this time.

The five Severan emperors faced great difficulties maintaining control over the empire. Their troubles demonstrate the importance of this pivotal period that ultimately led to Rome’s decline.

Septimius Severus

To strengthen his claim as emperor, Septimius Severus declared himself to be the secret son of Marcus Aurelius and even had his portrait fashioned in a similar manner to him. Like Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus wore his beard thick and curly in the style of Greek philosophers. His portraits show him as old, but fit and without the winkles of wisdom seen in Republican veristic portraiture.

Triumphal Arches of Septimius Severus

Two triumphal arches commissioned by Septimius Severus still stand today: the first at the northwest entrance to the Roman forum , and the second on the main road leading into the city of Leptis Magna, the Roman colony in modern Libya where Septimius Severus was born. Both were erected in 203 CE and commemorate the emperor’s victory over the Parthians.

The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus recalls the triumphal arch of Augustus, also erected to honor his own victory over the Parthians. Like Augustus’ arch, that of Septimius is a triple arch—the only surviving one in Rome.

Decorative panels depict scenes of conquest echoing the military scenes on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. These, however, depart from the Classical style, stylistically resembling more the figures on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The figures on the panels are carved in high relief , and each shows multiple scenes.

Small friezes recounting the triumphal procession also frame the panels. Other decorative elements include winged victories in the spandrels and two sets of four columns, one on each side, that frame the archways.

The columns are free-standing, decorative additions to the arch. On the pedestal of each are reliefs of Romans leading captive Parthians away. This arch visually recalls the triumphal arches of the past that stood in the Roman Forum and expresses the continuity of Septimius Severus’ imperial rule and the momentum of the empire.

Photograph shows a panel relief between two flutes columns.

The Arch of Septimius Severus: Detail of a panel relief.

This is a current-day photo of the Roman Arch of Septimius Severus.

The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus: This arch visually recalls the triumphal arches of the past that stood in the Roman Forum and expresses the continuity of Septimius Severus’ imperial rule and the momentum of the empire.

The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna is architecturally distinct and unique in comparison to the triumphal arches of Rome. This arch is four-sided and acts as a gateway into the city. Corinthian columns, eight in total, stand at each corner and support a broken pediment , a common architectural feature in the North African and Eastern provinces.

Despite its very different design, the arch’s components are in dialogue with the triumphal arch in Rome. Depictions of war spoils and captive barbarians line the interior of the arches and a frieze wraps around them, depicting the triumphal procession that occurred in Rome.

This frieze is both a portrayal of the actual triumph that Septimius Severus enjoyed as well as a mythical presentation, as gods and personifications are also present in the procession and at the sacrifice that followed.

This is a current-day photo of the Arch of Septimius Severus.

Arch of Septimius Severus: The arch at Leptis Magnus demonstrates the emerging artistic style of the second century CE and Late Antiquity.

Most importantly, the arch at Leptis Magnus demonstrates the emerging artistic style of the second century CE and Late Antiquity . The figures in the frieze are squat and square. The limbs are thick, and their clothing is stylistically rendered with incised lines that give no indication of the body underneath. It is a complete displacement of the Classical style that dominated Roman art during the previous three centuries

Baths of Caracalla

Caracalla was one of the last emperors of the century who had the time, resources, and power to build in the city of Rome.

His longest-lasting contribution is a large bath complex that stands to the southeast of Rome’s center. It covered over 33 acres and could hold over 1,600 bathers at a time. Bathing was an important part of Roman daily life, and the baths were a place for leisure, business, socializing, exercising, learning, and illicit affairs.

These baths not only held the traditional bathing pools but also exercise courts, changing rooms, and Greek and Latin libraries. A mithraeum has also been found on the site.

This is a diagram of the Baths of Caracalla. It shows the main entrance, the great court, and the baths themselves, consisting of a central frigidarium (cold room) under three groin vaults, a double pool tepidarium, and a caldarium (hot room), as well as two palaestras (gyms where wrestling and boxing were practiced). The north end of the bath building contained a natatio or swimming pool.

Baths of Caracalla: A reconstructed ground plan of this vast complex.

Architecturally, the Baths of Caracalla demonstrate the impressive mastery of Roman building and the importance of concrete and the vaulting systems developed by the Romans to create large and impressive buildings with ceilings that span great distances. The building was lavishly decorated with marble veneer, fanciful mosaics , and monumental Greek marble statues.

This is the drawing of the Baths of Caracalla described in the caption.

Baths of Caracalla: This artist’s reconstruction shows a groin-vaulted interior, Composite columns, and decorative panels on the ceiling. Human figures have been added for scale.

Quirinal Hill Serapeum

In 212, Caracalla erected a temple (called a Serapeum) on Quirinal Hill dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis, a human-headed deity who shared Greek and Egyptian attributes. This Serapeum was, by most surviving accounts, the most sumptuous and architectonically ambitious of those built on the hill.

The temple covered over three acres. It was composed by a long courtyard (surrounded by a colonnade) and by the ritual area, where statues and obelisks were erected. Designed to impress its visitors, the temple boasted columns nearly 70 feet tall and over six feet in diameter, sitting atop a marble stairway that connected the base of the hill to the sanctuary .

The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch. Symbolically, the temple signified the diversity that the Roman pantheon had reached by the third century.

This is a current-day photo of the Ruins of Caracalla’s Serapeum on the Quirinal Hill as described in the caption.

Ruins of Caracalla’s Serapeum on the Quirinal Hill: The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch.

Sculpture during the Decline of the Roman Empire

The Dominate Period, when warring generals controlled Rome, was a time marked by insecurity, anxiety, and a rapid succession of emperors.

Learning Objectives

Contrast the Late Antique style with earlier Classical conventions

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Portraits of the soldier emperors reflect the anxiety and fear the men probably felt with their lives in peril. The need to depict oneself as heroic, strong, and firm is also evident.
  • The Crisis of the Third Century saw over twenty-five men claim the title of emperor and assume power over the empire.
  • Sculpture during this time fully develops into the Late Antique style , which derives from second century CE plebeian art. An early instance of its use is seen on the Arches of Septimius Severus.
  • The Late Antique style becomes simple, less realistic, and rejects Classical conventions that focused on naturalism and the proper rendering of the body and clothing in favor of simplicity and heavy, angular lines , squat bodies, and incised details.

Key Terms

  • Praetorian Guard: The force of body guards used by Roman emperors.
  • adlocutio: An address by a general (usually the emperor) to his massed army and a general salute from the army to their leader.
  • late antique: The style of art that covers the transition from the Classical world and the civilizations of Greece and Rome into the Middle Ages. In terms of artistic style, it covers the transition from Roman to Medieval and Byzantine art.
  • Parthians: An ancient Persian empire based in the northeast of modern day Iran.

After Caracalla

Emperor Caracalla was assassinated while campaigning against the Parthians in 217 CE. He was quickly succeeded by a member of his personal guard, Macrinus, who ruled for less than a year before his own death.

Elagabalus, the grandson of Julia Domna’s sister, and his cousin Alexander Severus were the last in the Severan line. Both men managed to maintain control of Rome , and Alexander Severus was even able to improve the economic condition of the empire. Following Alexander’s death at the hands of his own soldiers, Rome plunged into a long period of uneasy, rapid successions referred to as the Crisis of the Third Century, a crisis that lasted for fifty years.

Soldier Emperors

The first 26 emperors of this period were generals who either proclaimed themselves or were officially acknowledged as the emperor. Their reigns lasted from a couple of months to a couple of years. The fact that they were all generals in the Roman army underscores the military insecurity of the empire at this time.

Instead of protecting the border or trade routes, legions of soldiers were often fighting each other in support of one emperor or another. Since Roman power was still centered in Rome, the only building project that succeeded through this period was the building and maintaining of the city’s Aurelian Wall, under the emperor Aurelian (r. 270–275 CE).

The portraits of Trajan Decius (r. 249–251 CE) and Trebonianus Gallus (r. 252–253 CE) serve to illustrate the instability of the period and the need for soldier-emperors to assert power to maintain some semblance of control.

Trajan Decius

Trajan D’s portrait at first seems to take its artistic style from Republican veristic portraiture, but a closer look reveals something else. Instead of depicting a hyper-realistic portrait of an old and wise man, this portrait reveals the anxiety and nervousness of the emperor. His brow is furrowed with worry and wrinkles, and his eyes and mouth impart a feeling of fear and anguish.

This is a photo of the portrait of Trajanus Decius, a man with a receding hairline and a lined face. His expression shows that he is anxious and concerned.

Trajanus Decius: Instead of depicting a hyper-realistic portrait of an old and wise man, this portrait reveals the anxiety and nervousness of the emperor.

Trebonianus Gallus

The portrait of his successor, Trebonianus Gallus takes a different style, relying on old sculpture and narrative conventions to depict the emperor as a contemporary hero. This larger-than-life bronze statue depicts a muscled, nude man with his right arm raised in a gesture of speech. He seems to be in adlocutio pose, addressing the troops or perhaps the people of Rome. His head is notably smaller than his torso and disproportional to his body. This places emphasis on his bulk and reminds the viewer of the emperor’s power and the stability he hoped to create.

This is a photo of the statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a full-length standing nude statue. The body is large, bulky, and muscular. The head is disproportionately small.

Trebonianus Gallus: This portrait takes a different style, relying on old sculpture and narrative conventions to depict the emperor as a contemporary hero.

Late Antique Art: The Ludovisi Sarcophagus

Sculpture during this period demonstrates the style and design of Late Antique art that was initially developed during the late second century CE from plebeian models. The emergence of the style corresponds with the social, political, and economic upheaval of the empire that began during the reign of Commodus.

This style removes Classical conventions of realism . It pushes its characters into the foreground and almost entirely removes the background.

In the scenes shown on the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the undercutting of the deep relief exhibits virtuosic and very time-consuming drill work that conveys chaos and a sense of weary, open-ended victory. It differs from earlier battle scenes on sarcophagi in which more shallowly carved figures are less convoluted and intertwined.

Unlike earlier Roman depictions of warfare, this scene does not differentiate the general by his attire or engagement in battle. Rather, he is only slightly larger than the figures around him.

This is a closeup photo of the Ludovisi Sarcophagus. The panel relief depicts a densely populated Roman battle scene.

Ludovisi Sarcophagus: In the scenes shown on the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the undercutting of the deep relief exhibits virtuosic and very time-consuming drill work that conveys chaos and a sense of weary, open-ended victory.

From the late second century, Roman art increasingly depicted battles as chaotic, packed, single-plane scenes that emphasize dehumanized barbarians who are subjected mercilessly to Roman military might, at a time when in fact the Roman Empire was undergoing constant invasions from external threats that led to the fall of the empire in the West. Although armed, the barbarian warriors, usually identified as Goths, are depicted as helpless to defend themselves.

After the Soldier Emperors

The Crisis of the Third Century continued after the reign of the Soldier Emperors as the title of emperor was auctioned off to the highest bidder by the Praetorian Guard and various men, not always generals, from around the empire seized power for brief periods of time. This process continued until the reign of Diocletian, beginning in 284 CE.

Imperial Sculpture under the Tetrarchy

Emperor Diocletian institutionalized the Tetrarchy, a co-rule that re-established stability in the empire for the period of Diocletian’s reign.

Learning Objectives

Define the Tetrarchy as seen during Diocletian’s rule

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Diocletian reigned from 284 to 305 CE as an individual emperor and as a member of the Tetrarchy .
  • The Tetrarchy, or rule of four, was established by Diocletian as a means to administrate the empire more effectively. The four chosen men were given the title of Augustus for the senior emperor, or Caesar to designate the junior emperor.
  • Portraits of the Tetrarchs depict four nearly identical men standing with their arms around each other to represent their solidarity, authority, and the stability that their reign brought to the empire.
  • A portrait bust of the Tetrarch Galerius demonstrates the increasingly abstract direction in which portraiture was moving in the Late Antique period.

Key Terms

  • tetrarchy: Historically, an empire that was ruled by four rulers.
  • porphyry: A hard, igneous rock that consists of large crystals in a fine-grained matrix.

The Tetrarchy

Diocletian , a military general from the cavalry, was declared emperor by his legion in 284 CE. He re-established stability in the empire and paved the way for fourth-century political and social developments.

This is a photo shows a Portrait of Diocletian in a museum case. Diocletian achieved stability by establishing the Tetrarchy, Greek for rule by four.

Portrait of Diocletian: Diocletian achieved stability by establishing the Tetrarchy, Greek for rule by four.

Diocletian achieved stability by establishing the Tetrarchy, Greek for rule by four. The Tetrarchy consisted of four emperors who reigned over two halves of the empire. Each pair of emperors was given control over either the eastern or western portion of the empire. Of the pair, one was given the title Caesar (a junior emperor) and the other Augustus (the senior emperor).

This allowed Diocletian and his fellow emperors to organize the administration of the provinces, separate military and civic command, and restore authority throughout the realm. They further solidified their commitment to each other and communal rule by marrying into each other’s families.

Portraits of the Tetrarchs

Imperial portraiture of the Tetrarchs depicts the four emperors together and looking nearly identical. The portraiture symbolizes the concept of co-rule and cohesiveness instead of the power of the individual. The idea of the Tetrarchy, which is apparent in their portraits, is based on the ideal of four men working together to establish peace and stability throughout the empire.

The medium of the famous porphyry sculpture of the Tetrarchs, originally from the city of Constantinople, represents the permanence of the emperors. Furthermore, the two pairs of rulers—a Caesar and an Augustus with arms around each other— form a solid, stable block that reinforces the stability the Tetrarchy brought to the Roman Empire.

This is a photo of the Portrait of the Tetrarchs. The Portrait of the Tetrarchs is originally from Constantinople, but since the Middle Ages it has been fixed to a corner of the facade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy.

Portrait of the Tetrarchs: Portrait of the Tetrarchs from Constantinople; since the Middle Ages it has been fixed to a corner of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

Stylistically, this portrait of the Tetrarchs is done in Late Antique style , which uses a distinct squat, formless bodies, square heads, and stylized clothing clearly seen in all four men. The Tetrarchs have almost no body.

As opposed to Classical sculptures, which acknowledge the body beneath the attire, the clothes of the Tetrarchs form their bodies into chunky rectangles. Details such as the cuirass (breastplate), skirt, armor, and cloak are highly stylized and based on simple shapes and the repetition of lines .

Despite the culmination of this artistic style, the rendering of the Tetrarchs in this manner seems to fit the connotations of Tetrarch rule and need for stability throughout the empire.

Portrait of Galerius

Galerius served in the Tetrarchy from 293 to 311 CE, beginning his career as the Caesar of the West (293–305) under Diocletian, and eventually rising to Augustus of the West (305–311) after Diocletian’s retirement.

During his reign he campaigned, aided by Diocletian, against the Sassanid (Neo-Persian) Empire, and sacked their capital in 299. He also campaigned across the Danube against the Carpi (in present-day eastern Romania), and defeated them in 297 and 300.

He opposed Christianity and oversaw the carrying out of the Diocletianic Persecution, which rescinded the rights of Christians and ordered that they comply with traditional Roman religious practices. However, toward the end of his reign in 311, he issued an edict of toleration.

A porphyry bust of Galerius (c. 300 CE) shows the direction that portraiture was taking in the fourth century. This bust from the emperor’s palace features a face that is largely naturalistic with large expressive eyes and eyebrows, similar to those on the group portrait of the Tetrarchs, that lean toward abstraction.

These attributes follow those of other sculptures of the Late Antique style and foreshadow the increasingly geometric form that facial features would assume in imperial portraiture and sculpture in general.

This is a photo of the Portrait Bust of Galerius. This bust from the emperor's palace features a face that is largely naturalistic with large expressive eyes and eyebrows, similar to those on the group portrait of the Tetrarchs, that lean toward abstraction.

Portrait Bust of Galerius: This bust from the emperor’s palace features a face that is largely naturalistic with large expressive eyes and eyebrows, similar to those on the group portrait of the Tetrarchs, that lean toward abstraction.

Diocletian’s Palace

Despite increasing abstraction in Late Antique sculpture, Diocletian’s Palace maintains the tradition of Classicism in Roman architecture.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the significance of Diocletian’s Palace and its contribution to Roman architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Diocletian abdicated from power and retired to his palace, an imperial villa built in the model of a military encampment known as a castrum .
  • Diocletian’s palace features numerous traditional attributes of Roman architecture, including Composite columns , round arches , and a domed ceiling with an oculus .
  • The arcuated pediment in the Peristyle is a rare attribute in Roman architecture.
  • The northern half of the palace was not as well preserved as the rest of the structure. Scholars can only form educated guesses as to its purpose.
  • The presence of Egyptian sphinxes points to the former emperor’s eclectic taste in decoration.

Key Terms

  • arcuated: Describing a form containing a curve that makes it concave.
  • revetment: A sloping structure placed on a bank or cliff in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water.
  • castrum: Latin for camp or fortress;  a military encampment planned in a square or rectangle with two main roads in each direction.
  • cardo: A street that runs north to south in an ancient Roman city.

Diocletian’s Palace

Diocletian abdicated power in 305 CE and left the Tetrarchy to his co-emperors and Severus, the newly inaugurated general. Diocletian then retired to his boyhood palace in Dalmatia.

The palace’s remains became the center of the modern city of Spilt in Croatia. Diocletian’s palace was built as a fortress, demonstrating that despite Diocletian’s success as emperor, he still required security living in a hostile Roman environment. Despite the stylistic changes in sculpture , Diocletian’s palace serves as a reminder that the style of Roman architecture continued to be based on Classical models and forms.

In addition to its numerous round arches and Classical columns, the palace also contains a vestibule with a domed ceiling that has an oculus somewhat reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome .

This is a current-day photo of the vestibule in Diocletian's Palace. It shows the domed ceiling with an oculus that shows the blue sky.

Vestibule: Note the domed ceiling with a wide oculus in Diocletian’s Palace, in Split, Croatia, c. 305 CE.

The palace was set up in a similar fashion to a castrum and contained courts, libraries, and other features found in imperial villas. It was constructed from local materials including limestone , marble, and brick. Some material for decoration was imported: Egyptian granite columns, fine marble for revetments , and some capitals produced in workshops in the Proconnesos (present-day Marmara Island off the coast of Turkey).

The southern wall, which was the only unfortified part of the palace, was practically built on the waterfront and appeared to rise out of the Adriatic Sea.

This is a painting of Diocletian's Palace. It is an artist's reconstruction of the original structure. It depicts the palace, an irregular rectangle, with towers projecting from the western, northern, and eastern facades.

Diocletian’s Palace: An artist’s reconstruction of the original structure.

Diocletian’s palace demonstrates the Roman use of vaults in the substructure and the use of columns, peristyles, and entablatures to create monumental spaces . For example, the central court of the palace, known as the Peristyle, demonstrates the stylistic and monumental use of these architectural elements.

Furthermore, the central court was sunken and a flight of stairs enclosed the court and led up to the decorative Peristyle and surrounding rooms. This increased the feeling of monumentality while emphasizing Diocletian’s imperial power, as members of the court had to stand several steps below the entrances to the temples, mausoleum , and court rooms.

This is a photo of the Peristyle at Diocletian's Palace. The Peristyle is the central square of the palace, where the main entrance to Diocletian's quarters is located.

The Peristyle at Diocletian’s Palace: The arcuated pediment is a rare feature in Roman architecture. Resting on four Composite columns, the pediment contains a round arch that rises into its base toward its apex.

A main feature of the Peristyle is the portico that marks the entrance to Diocletian’s private apartments. Following the format of a traditional Roman temple to a degree, the portico rests atop a raised platform. Behind it rests a marble-faced brick wall with three entrances: an archway flanked by a rectangular portal on each side.

Perhaps its most unique feature is the arcuated pediment that sits atop the temple facade. Resting on four Composite columns, the pediment contains a round arch that rises into its base toward its apex . An arcade supported by Composite columns stands to either side of the facade.

The northern half of the palace, divided in two parts by the cardo leading from the northern gate to the Peristyle, is not as well preserved as the rest of the palace. Scholars posit that each part was a residential complex that housed soldiers, servants, and possibly some other facilities. Both parts were apparently surrounded by streets. Leading to the perimeter walls there were rectangular buildings that were possibly storage magazines.

While the architectural aspects of the palace follow Roman traditions, several decorative choices hail from Egypt. Diocletian adorned his new home with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Only three have survived the centuries. One is still on the Peristyle, the second sits headless in front of Jupiter’s temple, and a third is in the city museum.

This is a photo of the sphinx from the tomb of Thutmose III as described in the caption.

Sphinx from the tomb of Thutmose III: Diocletian adorned his new home with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III.

This is a photo of the headless sphinx in front of the Temple of Jupiter.

Headless sphinx in front of the Temple of Jupiter: Located in Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, c. 305 CE.

Architecture under Constantine

Constantine seized sole power over Rome to establish authority and stability, and then moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople.

Learning Objectives

Identify the actions and works of art that Constantine is most noted for

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Constantine reigned from 306 to 337 CE. He managed to re-establish stability in the empire and rule as a single emperor, legalize Christianity, and move the imperial capital to the newly-formed city of Constantinople.
  • The Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch commemorating Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, makes use of spolia from monuments dedicated to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.
  • Constantine completed the Basilica Nova, the construction of which was begun by his rival, Maxentius. This massive concrete building displayed the impressive power and authority of Constantine.
  • At one end of the Basilica Nova sat the Colossus of Constantine: over 40 feet tall and made of marble, brick, wood frames, and bronze gilding. The Colossus further emphasized the sole authority, control, and power held by Constantine.
  • After Constantine relocated, the city of Rome became vulnerable to barbarian hoards who pillaged local monuments and buildings. Outside Rome, Constantine oversaw the construction of the imperial district of Constantinople and the Aula Palatina in Trier (present-day Germany).

Key Terms

  • nave: The central area of a basilica.
  • apse: A semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault, also known as an exedra.
  • colossus: A statue of gigantic proportions. The name was especially applied to certain famous statues in antiquity, such as the Colossus of Nero in Rome, and the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
  • basilica: A building having a nave with a semicircular apse, side aisles, a narthex, and a clerestory. The Roman design of the basilica became the model for Christian churches.
  • spolia: The reuse of building material or decorative sculpture for new buildings or monuments. Latin for spoils.

Constantine

Diocletian and his co-emperor Maximian abdicated power on May 1, 305 CE. However, over the course of the next five years, Maximian made several attempts to regain his title, and then committed suicide in 310. In the meantime, power passed to Maximian’s son Maxentius and Constantine, the son of a third co-emperor, Constantius.

Unfortunately for Diocletian’s legacy and the stability created by the Tetrarchy , a power struggle between the two heirs erupted a year after the former Augustus’ abdication. When Constantius died on July 25, 306, his father’s troops proclaimed Constantine as Augustus in Eboracum (York, England).

In Rome, the favorite was Maxentius, who seized the title of emperor on October 28, 306. Galerius, ruler of the Eastern provinces and the senior emperor in the Empire, recognized Constantine’s claim and treated Maxentius as a usurper. Galerius, however, recognized Constantine as holding only the lesser imperial rank of Caesar.

Despite a mutiny against Galerius’ co-emperor Severus in 307, and Galerius’s subsequent failure to take Rome, Constantine managed to avoid conflict for most of this period. However, by 312, Constantine and Maxentius were engaged in open hostilities, culminating in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in which Constantine emerged victorious.

Although he attributed this victory to the aid of the Christian god, he did not convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed. The following year, however, he enacted the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity and allowed its followers to begin building churches. With the Christian community growing in number and in influence, legalizing Christianity was, for Constantine, a pragmatic move.

Following a rebellion from Licinius, his own co-emperor in 324 CE, Constantine eventually had his former colleague executed and consolidated power under a single ruler. As the sole emperor of an empire with new-found stability, Constantine was able to patronize large building projects in Rome. However, despite his attention to that city, he moved the capital of the empire east to the newly founded city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine demonstrates the continuance of the newly-adopted artistic style for imperial sculpture . This arch was erected between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, the home of the imperial palace. It stands over the triumphal route before it enters the Republican Forum . This forms a dialog with the Arch of Titus at the top, overlooking the Forum, and the Arch of Septimius Severus, which, in turn, stands at the other end of the Forum before the Via Sacra heads uphill to the Capitolium.

This is a current-day photo of the Arch of Constantine.

Arch of Constantine: The Arch demonstrates the continuance of the newly-adopted artistic style for imperial sculpture.

The Senate commissioned the triumphal arch in honor of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius. It is a triple arch and its iconography represents Constantine’s supreme power and the stability and peace his reign brought to Rome.

The Arch of Constantine is especially noted for its use of spolia: architectural and decorative elements removed from one monument for use on another. Those from the monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius—all considered good emperors of the Pax Romana—were reused as decoration.

Trajanic panels that depict the emperor on horseback defeating barbarian soldiers adorn the interior of the central arch. The original face was reworked to take the likeness of Constantine. Eight roundels, or relief discs, adorn the space just above the two smaller side arches. These are Hadrianic and depict images of hunting and sacrifice .

The final set of spolia includes eight panel reliefs on the arch’s attic, from the era of Marcus Aurelius, depicting the dual identities of the emperor, as both a military and a civic leader. The incorporation of these elements symbolize Constantine’s legitimacy and his status as one of the good emperors.

The rest of the arch is decorated using Late Antique styles. The proximity of different artistic styles, under four different emperors, highlights the stylistic variations and artistic developments that occurred, both in the second century CE, as well as their differences to the Late Antique style.

Besides the decorative elements in the spandrels , a Constantinian frieze runs around the arch, between the tops of the small arches and the bottoms of the roundels. This frieze highlights the artistic style of the period and chronologically depicts Constantine’s rise to power. Unlike previous examples of Late Antique art, the bodies in this frieze are completely schematic and defined only by stiff, rigid clothes. In one scene, featuring Constantine distributing gifts, the emperor is centrally depicted and raised above his supporters on a throne .

This photo shows a detail of the northern frieze of the Arch of Constantine as described in the caption.

A detail of the northern frieze of the Arch of Constantine: This detail shows Constantine distributing gifts from his throne down to his supporters.

Basilica Nova and the Colossus of Constantine

When Constantine and Maxentius clashed at the Milvian Bridge, Maxentius was in the middle of building a grand basilica. It was eventually renamed the Basilica Nova, and was located near the Roman Forum. The basilica consisted of one side aisle on either side of a central nave .

This is a diagram of the Basilica Nova, showing its ground plan. The building consisted of a central nave covered by three groin vaults suspended above the floor on large piers, ending in an apse at the western end.

Basilica Nova: The ground plan of the Basilica Nova in Rome.

When Constantine took over and completed the grand building, it was 300 feet long, 215 feet wide, and stood 115 feet tall down the nave. Concrete walls 15 feet thick supported the basilica’s massive scale and expansive vaults . It was lavishly decorated with marble veneer and stucco . The southern end of the basilica was flanked by a porch, with an apse at the northern end.

This is a photo of the Basilica Nova as it stands today in Rome, Italy. It shows the three arches.

Basilica Nova: As it stands today in Rome, Italy.

The apse of the Basilica Nova was the location of the Colossus of Constantine. This colossus was built from many parts. The head, arms, hands, legs, and feet were carved from marble, while the body was built with a brick core and wooden framework and then gilded.

Photo of the giant sculpture of the head of the colossus of Constantine, depicted with large wide eyes and a strong jawline.

The head of the colossus of Constantine: The head is over eight feet tall and 6.5 feet long.

Only parts of the Colossus remain, including the head that is over eight feet tall and 6.5 feet long. It shows a portrait of an individual with clearly defined features: a hooked nose, prominent jaw, and large eyes that look upwards. Like the porphyry bust of Galerius, Constantine’s portrait combines naturalism in his nose, mouth, and chin with a growing sense of abstraction in his eyes and geometric hairstyle.

He also held an orb and, possibly, a scepter, and one hand points upwards towards the heavens. Both the immensity of the scale and his depiction as Jupiter (seated, heroic, and semi-nude) inspire a feeling of awe and overwhelming power and authority.

The basilica was a common Roman building and functioned as a multipurpose space for law courts, senate meetings, and business transactions. The form was appropriated for Christian worship and most churches, even today, still maintain this basic shape.

Rome after Constantine

Following Constantine’s founding of a New Rome at Constantinople, the prominence and importance of the city of Rome diminished. The empire was then divided into east and west. The more prosperous eastern half of the empire continued to thrive, mainly due to its connection to important trade routes, while the western half of the empire fell apart.

While Byzantium controlled Italy and the city Rome at times over the next several centuries, for the most part the Western Roman Empire, due to being less urban and less prosperous, was difficult to protect. Indeed, the city of Rome was sacked multiple times by invading armies, including the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, over the next century.

The multiple sackings of Rome resulted in the raiding of the marble, facades, décor, and columns from the monuments and buildings of the city. Parts of ancient Rome, especially the Republican Forum, returned once again to the cow pastures that they originally were at the time of the city’s founding, as floods from the Tiber washed them over in debris and sediment.

Constantinople

Constantine laid out a new square at the center of old Byzantium, naming it the Augustaeum. The new senate-house was housed in a basilica on the east side. On the south side of the great square was erected the Great Palace of the Emperor with its imposing entrance and its ceremonial suite known as the Palace of Daphne.

Nearby was the vast Hippodrome for chariot races, seating over 80,000 spectators, and the famed Baths of Zeuxippus. At the western entrance to the Augustaeum was the Milion, a vaulted monument from which distances were measured across the Eastern Roman Empire.

This is a map of the imperial district of Constantinople in present-day Istanbul, Turkey.

The Imperial district of Constantinople: Present-day Istanbul, Turkey.

The Mese, a great street lined with colonnades , led from the Augustaeum. As it descended the First Hill of the city and climbed the Second Hill, it passed the Praetorium or law-court. Then it passed through the oval Forum of Constantine where there was a second Senate house and a high column with a statue of Constantine in the guise of Helios, crowned with a halo of seven rays and looking toward the rising sun. From there the Mese passed on and through the Forum Tauri and then the Forum Bovis, and finally up the Seventh Hill (or Xerolophus) and through to the Golden Gate in the Constantinian Wall.

The Aula Palatina, Trier, Germany

Constantine built the Aula Palatina (c. 310 CE) as a part of the palace complex. Originally it was attached to smaller buildings (such as an antehall, a vestibule, and service buildings) attached to it. The Aula Palatina has a simplified Roman basilica plan, consisting of a wide nave that ends in a north-facing apse.

Although round arches repeat throughout the interior and exterior, the building deviates from the traditional basilica with the flat ceiling that covers the nave and the flat roof that tops the apse.

This is an exterior photo of Aula Palatina.

Aula Palatina: Known today as the Church of the Redeemer in Trier, Germany, c. 310 CE.

This is a photo of the interior of the Aula Palatina, facing north.

Aula Palatina: The Aula Palatina has a simplified Roman basilica plan, consisting of a wide nave that ends in a north-facing apse.